Giving it Away

by Amorina Kingdon

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published ‘Open Letter to all the Colleges that Rejected me.” by highschooler Suzy Lee Weiss. The synopsis: her peers padded their resumes with gratuitous, useless charity work, and the colleges fell for it.

The comments that follow are in two camps: one being, well, duh, Gen Y brat whines that after doing nothing distinguishing, she is un-shockingly not recognized for it.

But she was also lauded. Because there is a stereotypical image of the people she skewers – female, wealthy – declaring their caring for disease x or survivors of y. And you already know how you secretly feel about them: their work is noble – ‘public-minded’ – but, ultimately, inconsequential.

The volunteer and not-for-profit (NFP) sectors are gendered. This is important for women, because they are 48 per cent of Toronto’s labour force, but 84 per cent of its not-for-profit labour force. Canadian volunteers are most likely married, educated females, with an above-average income. Since women have entered the workforce comparatively recently, these statistics carry implications about how women have integrated into the working world, especially the demographic tendency toward educated, wealthy women who would perhaps be in the best position to take the business world by storm.

Work is important. It’s is the primary way we interact with society as individuals, by trading time and labour in return for sustenance. Work is independence.

But volunteer work can’t directly support someone. So whatever pride you may feel at the end of the day, you also feel a bit like….a beggar. And what weighs in the balance? Oh, right – the rewards of selfless giving.

But these are the same values that kept women in the private sphere as unpaid housewives, labouring for this same reward of selflessness instead of money. Can that not, perhaps, be one reason why they feel at home in the sector?

I’d like to quickly acknowledge the generalizations I’m making by lumping volunteers and NFPs together when they have many differences, salary and benefits being the biggest. (This essay deals principally with volunteers and part-time employees, not those drawing a full-time salary.) But they do share some key similarities.

1. Donors: Funding requests often go to the same donor pool, requiring a certain public image to match those donors’ ideas of acceptability. This often bends towards the traditional and conservative.

2. Career prospects: It’s hard to build a career in the for-profit sector if your resume is largely volunteer or not-for-profit.

3. Job security: Many of these organizations live paycheck to donor paycheck. It’s very hard to plan your work when it could shut down at any time.

So why are women taking this deal? Many reasons: some simple, some not-so-simple.

1. Their work is often traditionally female (e.g. health, awareness, fundraising.) Notice a pattern? Talking and nurturing figure highly.

2. They are more flexible, because many women have childcare duties.

3. They are un-threatening to the proverbial male ego.

4. With more women in the sector, it’s likely they’ll hire more.

5. Because much of the work in this sector resembles the unpaid work that women have traditionally done at home for support from a husband or family, women are more intellectually comfortable taking work that’s un- or under-paid.

This one key assumption – that public-minded, selfless enterprises should not be monetized – keeps women’s work and labour acceptably out of the free market, and women relatively uncompensated. While organizational structures have been built around it, much of the work feels a lot like home.  
This is because today’s volunteer sector has its roots in the idea of private property, and a private sphere. The idea that some work should not be ‘for profit’ stems from our understanding of the archetypal household. (Of course, private can also mean a for-profit business, but for the purposes of this article, ‘private’ refers to the home.) This is neither a public democracy, or a for-profit hierarchy, but a sort of benign tyranny. One person rules uncontested, and the rest fulfill their various functions in exchange for protection, name, honour and resources, but no direct compensation, and little control over said resources. This arrangement—the traditional wife in the traditional household— has a sort of arbitrary sanctity that’s simply another word for being owned. This the realm of childcare, education and healthcare; of helping and cooking and making. Traditionally, it’s the realm of women’s work, and within this sort of work, our cultural narrative says that the labour is free, done by people who are already bought and paid for in full. To profit from this work is to sully it.

 

Imagine a bachelor who paid a housekeeper to take care of all these sorts of things, putting money in her hand for her labour, which she was then free to do what she liked with. That’s an employer/employee relationship. But the role of the traditional married woman is exactly that, employee of the husband. But she’s not paid in money – that would shine the cold hard light of economics on an economically unfair relationship. Instead, she gets the ‘honour’ of being a respectable married woman, with a shiny new last name, gets to keep a small slice of her labour to feed and clothe herself (no, that’s not the same as a salary), and most importantly she is the heart of the home, loved for her selflessness; she is a volunteer.

This is a narrative that women must reject. Work is work. Women are not selfless by nature, any more so than men. That is simply the coin they have been paid with in lieu of actual coin for most of history. Rejecting that label and considering their labour worthy of recompense in the currency that allows them to participate in the public sphere – money – is not desecrating anything: it’s tearing down an illusion.

But then again, how can we privatize those things without opening the door for corruption? There’s a reason we hate corporations!

But examine some of the assumptions behind that indignation. The assumption that private industry can only be evil, aggressive, untrustworthy. That it can only do harm, can only work on a growth model where people are taken advantage of.

These are patriarchal values, and they fuck over everyone involved; the men who feel they need to be ruthless buggers to succeed, and the women who feel they can neither embrace nor re-negotiate the terms of patriarchal success, and therefore stay home or organize bake-sales.

What if – and I’m really blue-sky-thinking here – the women already working in these ‘selfless’ sectors led the way in figuring out how to make a living from their work – but left the ruthless patriarchal values behind? What if we challenged the notion that you can’t make a living from giving? What if we – oh my god, someone slap me, I’m clearly hysterical – instead of flat out rejecting capitalism and privatization, found grassroots ways to change how it’s done?

Perhaps I’m not crazy. I am encouraged by this recent NYT article. I’m also encouraged by endeavours like Etsy, although it’s only baby steps.

Whether or not these can become scalable outside large cities and widely affordable, it’s still a start at chipping away old models of ‘public-mindedness’.

Women bring a different philosophy to corporations. Of course you can find stats to say whatever you like, but companies with more women at the top tend to do better, and some data even suggests that women’s portfolios do better long-term because they take fewer reckless risks. It’s not that they biologically must bring these values; it’s that we know the story from the outside of the club.

There are many challenges, too many to list here, but I want to mention the most important: divorcing effectiveness from straight-up profit in the eye of the user and the initial funders. This is key, because much of the response to the Wall St Journal article centres around the implicit assumption that volunteers and NFPs are just not that important (read: effective). Not to mention that we publish big lists on the mismanagement and frivolousness of the bigger charities. (If only we brought the same scrutiny to bear on all organizations. How much do you think it cost to make that $200 coat you’re wearing?)

Unfortunately, import and effectiveness are often symbolized by the bottom line. So if an organization isn’t turning a huge profit, it must not be effective. Kind of a stacked deck for something termed a ‘not-for-profit.’

A good example of this is the safe-injection site Insite in Vancouver, BC. In 2011, they had to produce evidence that they had a health benefit in order to justify their exemption from federal drug laws, by guesstimating how many people would have maybe probably died if they hadn’t shot up at Insite instead of rainwater puddles in Downtown Eastside back alleys. The answer is both ‘we don’t know’ and ‘some’. If success in these kinds of fields is measured by profit alone, we are ascribing monetary value to human life.

So what is more important, profit or effectiveness? Capitalist thinking would have it that they are the same thing; the more effective an organization is, the more profit it generates. But this is based on industries that have thrived on the masters-of-the-universe growth model. Haven’t we learned that besides ripping society apart, such models simply don’t last? Things other than just the bottom line must become measures of an organization’s success.

We have a funny ideal that ‘public mindedness’ is noble and ‘getting paid’ is selfish, and they are mutually exclusive. This is a false dichotomy based on the economic exclusion of people lulled into working for free with platitudes and labels of ‘selflessness and goodness.’ We need to learn that the work that mostly-women volunteers do should be taken seriously and compensated fairly. To do otherwise is frankly discriminatory, and misses out on the insights and approaches they bring to the table. If you are going to work – if you are going to put in time, energy, and thought into a task that produces a benefit for others – then you don’t need a reason to get paid. You need to justify NOT getting paid.

 

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